Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Time for electoral reform in Israel

          Throughout Israel’s constitutional logjam it has been difficult to see the wood for the trees. The trees that have been blocking the view are the political maneuverings of the main protagonists. Many, if not most, voters believe that some form of unity government was well within the grasp of either Benjamin Netanyahu or Benny Gantz, if either – or, indeed, if Avidgor Liberman – had deigned to compromise. Their rigid red lines, however, proved too powerful a disincentive to do that. As a result the national interest, which is crying out for a return to effective government, has suffered

          The wood, hidden from view by these burgeoning trees, is the fact that it is Israel’s current electoral system which has landed the country in this mess. The way governments are elected is in urgent need of reconsideration and reform.

          What are its obvious weaknesses? To anyone nurtured in the bosom of US or UK democracy, the most obvious problem is that Israeli general elections do not return a majority party but require weeks of intensive back-room negotiations before a government can be formed, and that sometimes these negotiations fail to deliver. Having failed twice, what assurance is there that a third general election would yield a different outcome?

          Israel’s system presupposes that all governments will be coalitions. But no immutable law states that democratic governments must be coalitions. The normal result of general elections in the UK and the US is that one or other of the two main parties is returned to power with a working majority and subsequently forms a government. Neither require weeks of sometimes unsavory wheeling and dealing following elections.

          When the Israeli electorate go to the polls, they are asked to choose the one party among the many competing – sometimes 30 or more – with whose policies they most agree. The number of seats that each party gains in the Knesset is almost exactly proportional to the number of votes the party obtains in the general election. That is a democratic plus.

          The downside is that inevitably the nation’s vote is fractured. No one party can emerge as the outright winner. Hence the back-room trading and bargaining. Concessions are demanded by the smaller parties in return for their support. The policies finally agreed between the cobbled-together majority can be far from the policies any elector voted for.

          A considerable additional weakness in the current arrangements is the total lack of personal engagement between members of the Knesset and the people. MKs gain their seats because of their position on their party lists. In the US, citizens know who the two senators representing their State is, just as they know by name the individual who represents their constituency in Congress.

          The UK is divided into 650 constituencies, each of which returns one member of Parliament (MP) in a first-past-the-post voting system. Once elected that MP is deemed to represent all the voters in the constituency, and any of them with a problem would look to “their” MP for help. Every voter therefore has a direct personal link with an MP, whether that MP is a backbencher or a minister – even the prime minister.

          The main disadvantage of first-past-the-post is that seats in parliament do not match the national voting pattern. Candidates can and do win a seat having gained far less than 50 percent of the votes in their constituency. The system produces large majorities but a democratic deficit.

          Proposals to reform Israel’s electoral system by combining the constituency concept with proportionality have been put forward on several occasions. The last attempt, in 1988, proposed that Israel be divided into 60 constituencies, each of which would elect one MK, while another 60 would be elected by the current system. Electors would all vote for both a candidate and a list. The proposal foundered.

          Back in 2005, President Moshe Katsav set up a commission to examine constitutional issues including the electoral system. It met regularly for more than a year, and it too finally favoured a combined system although with a different constituency structure. The commission’s recommendations, like earlier attempts at electoral reform, were not followed up. Nor indeed were subsequent efforts, like those of Professor Menahem Ben-Sasson in 2006.

          This is a nettle that must be grasped. The dire events of 2019 point in no other direction. Electoral reform simply must be a major element in the political program of Israel’s next government, whenever it is formed.

Published in Israel Hayom, 3 December 2019: 

Monday, 2 December 2019

Palestinians edge towards elections

          Elections have become fashionable in the Holy Land. Israel has had two of them in the past year and seems poised for a third. Now the Palestinian Authority (PA) has caught the bug. After lengthy haggling, the PA, Hamas, Fatah and a clutch of other Palestinian factions have agreed to hold elections for the legislature and then for president early next year.

          It’s not before time. The last effort was 14 years ago, back in 2006. The outcome was so disastrous that there has been little appetite for repeating the experiment. Hamas won more votes and more seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) than the ruling Fatah party, but when President Mahmoud Abbas attempted to form a government of national unity, Hamas leader Ismail Haniya refused to serve as prime minister under him. Instead, led by Khaled Mashal, Hamas mounted a truly bloody coup in the Gaza strip, and ejected Fatah bag and baggage. With brief periods of respite, Hamas and Fatah have been at daggers drawn ever since.

          The struggle between Hamas and Fatah for the soul of the Palestinian people began almost from the moment that Hamas was created in 1987 as a radical off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas regarded the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), founded in 1964 to “liberate Palestine through armed struggle”, as not effective enough, despite the string of terrorist actions it perpetrated.

          When the PLO entered into peace talks with Israel, Hamas was appalled. Its leader, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, condemned the first Oslo Accord agreement of 1993, and rejected the PLO recognition of the State of Israel. Yasser Arafat, he declared, was “destroying Palestinian society and sowing the seeds of discord and division among Palestinians.”

          Hamas was never comfortable either with the PA, which emerged from the Oslo accords, nor with its claim to be the sole representative of the Palestinian people. It rejected the PA’s “play it long” policy of pressing for recognition of a sovereign Palestine within pre-1967 boundaries, even though that was only the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine. Equally Hamas opposed Abbas’s efforts to obtain recognition of a State of Palestine within the United Nations, since to do so would also legitimize Israel.

          At the heart of the Hamas-Fatah conflict is this fundamental difference about the most effective route to reach their common objective. Hamas has made no secret of its aspiration to replace Fatah as the governing body of the West Bank. Sometimes it chooses to acknowledge Abbas as Palestinian leader; sometimes it refuses to recognize him as PA president at all on the grounds that his presidential mandate, granted in 2005 for a four-year term, has long expired. Hamas has, moreover, consistently tried to undermine his PA administration by forming militant cells in the West Bank to launch attacks on Israel.

          Ismail Haniyeh, who became leader of Hamas in 2017, pursued the same hard line. Abbas reacted by attempting to force Hamas into submission through cutting financial support and restricting the Strip’s access to electricity. The many efforts at reconciliation between the parties, often sponsored by Egypt, have failed, and the Hamas-Fatah schism even led some to speculate on an eventual full-scale separation between the two Palestinian communities.

          The idea of new elections has come and gone several times over the past few years, always to be frustrated at the last minute. They were scheduled to be held between April and October 2014 in accordance with a Fatah-Hamas agreement reached in April 2014, but were delayed indefinitely. In October 2017, under a so-called Hamas-Fatah reconciliation deal, general elections were agreed to take place by the end of 2018. Once more they failed to materialize.

          On 26 September 2019, nothing daunted, Abbas again announced that he intended to set a date for elections. Hamas responded positively. but on 6 November Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a splinter terrorist organization active in Gaza, rejected Abbas’s terms, which specified that in order to be eligible to run, candidates would have to recognize the agreements signed by the PLO. Most of these, based as they are on the PA’s stated position of supporting the two-state solution, are anathema to Hamas.

          None the less, and protesting vigorously at the PA's decision to stop demonstrations in Ramallah in support of Palestinians jailed by Israel, Hamas finally, on November 26, signed its agreement to hold legislative and presidential elections in 2020. Judging by the past record, the chances of these elections actually taking place must stand at no more than 50-50.

          In any case, a possible hurdle stands in the way. On November 11 Abbas said that there would be no new Palestinian elections unless they included east Jerusalem. Chief of Hamas politburo, Ismail Haniyeh, endorsed that. East Jerusalem is administered by Israel, and its Palestinians citizens have the special status of “permanent residents”. Normally demonstrations of Palestinian sovereignty are not permitted within Jerusalem, but in the 2006 elections Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem were permitted to vote (they did so at post offices), and there seems no good reason why the same should not apply in 2020.

          Free and fair legislative elections whose result is respected by the contending parties could start healing the divisions which ravage the Palestinian body politic. As for new presidential elections, they are overdue by a decade at least, and could restore democratic legitimacy to Abbas who, despite his 84 years, shows no signs of stepping aside. The question is – will they actually take place?

Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 December 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 4 December 2019:

Thursday, 28 November 2019

Labour’s failures over antisemitism: the chickens come home to roost

This article of mine appears in the new edition of the Jerusalem Report, dated 9 December 2019
          Britain goes to the polls on December 12. Never before has a major political party entered into a UK general election campaign with two unresolved investigations hanging over its head. That is the position in which the British Labour party finds itself. Because the findings of the two inquiries, and their final reports, might influence the result of the election, it seems unlikely that they will be published before polling day. 

          Both investigations centre on the widely-held perception that the Labour party has been insufficiently diligent in its reaction to antisemitism within its ranks.

          To the surprise of everyone, and to the distaste of at least half the Labour MPs, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of Britain’s Labour party in September 2015. Corbyn was a rebel. He was known to hold hard left-wing views, at variance with the social democratic policies of his own party. Throughout a long parliamentary career he frequently voted against his party. He despised capitalism, colonialism, America, NATO, the UK’s nuclear deterrent and Israel, among a variety of other issues. Contrariwise he supported Marxist regimes like Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea, and groups using violence and terror to further their cause such as the IRA, Hamas and Hezbollah. He saw them as freedom fighters, and believed in engaging with them as a means of bringing opposing sides together.

          From the moment that Corbyn became leader, hard-left views on a variety of matters became mainstream within the Labour party. Among them was “intersectionality”, the accepted left-wing term for perceiving a direct link between all victims of oppression, whether sexual, racial, political, or economic. Palestinians were deemed oppressed, and therefore to be supported. Israel was deemed the oppressor, and therefore to be opposed. The conclusion, in approved left-wing doctrine, was unequivocal and unchallengeable support for the Palestinian cause.

          Some zealous supporters of Corbyn found it difficult to separate opposition to Israel from opposition to Jews generally – Israel was, after all, the Jewish state. In the case of some Corbyn supporters, anti-Zionism morphed easily enough into frank antisemitism.

          When some high profile Labour figures strayed so obviously beyond acceptable limits into openly antisemitic comments and were suspended from the party, public unease about the situation within Labour began to grow. In May 2016 Corbyn felt obligated to set up an inquiry into antisemitism within the party. He appointed Shami Chakrabati, then director of an organization promoting civil liberties, to chair it. In June 2016 she presented her report. It concluded that the party was not "overrun by antisemitism or other forms of racism", although there was an "occasionally toxic atmosphere" and "clear evidence of ignorant attitudes". In August 2016 she was made a life peer, and is now Baroness Chakrabati, shadow Attorney-General for England and Wales.

          Her report did nothing to stem the tide of antisemitism within Labour, nor to inhibit a succession of revelations linking Corbyn himself pretty closely with terrorists who drew no distinction between anti-Zionism and straightforward antisemitism. Meanwhile public criticism mounted about Labour’s ineffectiveness in tackling antisemitism within its ranks.

          In February 2019 nine Labour MPs resigned from the party largely on these grounds, and in May the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) announced that it was setting up an inquiry into whether Labour had "unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised people because they are Jewish". The EHRC had only once before ventured into the political arena, by investigating a fringe right-wing racist party.

          The Equality and Human Rights Commission was founded in 2007, bringing together three former bodies concerned with promoting equality in specific social areas. Its remit is to ensure that equality laws are enforced, and that discrimination and harassment ae eliminated. It was given legal powers to compel employers and organizations to cease discriminatory practices and to make such changes as are necessary to prevent future discrimination or non-compliance.

           The EHRC investigation into the Labour party is one of the two whose report and recommendations are awaited.

          On July 9, 2019 three Labour peers – Lords Turnberg, Trieseman and Darzi – resigned from the party, accusing Corbyn of antisemitism. The following evening the BBC broadcast a TV documentary on its main domestic channel titled: “Is Labour Antisemitic?” During the program a number of former party officials alleged that senior Labour figures had interfered in the process of dealing with antisemitism complaints. The whistleblowers also claimed that they had faced a huge increase in antisemitism complaints since Corbyn became leader in 2015, and described the great personal strain they had faced in trying to handle them.

          Before the documentary was broadcast, Corbyn’s campaigning group Momentum tweeted a 40-second video which attacked the programme’s veteran director, John Ware, claiming that he had a “record of public political hostility to Jeremy Corbyn, his politics and leadership of the Labour party”.

          After the broadcast Jon Lansman, the co-founder of the Momentum campaign group, called it a “politically motivated documentary into a subject that demands serious and fair discussion”.

           The Labour party then activated the BBC Complaints process. It issued a formal objection to the programme by way of a 28-page letter. In it the party alleged that the documentary failed to meet the BBC’s standards because of “the tendentious and politically slanted script; the bias in the selection of interviewees; and the failure to identify the political affiliations or records of interviewees .” It claimed the programme, “a highly controversial, sensitive and contested subject” was “a one-sided authored polemic”.

          The BBC takes its complaints procedure very seriously. It publishes a 45-page document entitled: “BBC Complaints Framework and Procedures” which sets out in comprehensive detail how the public should go about registering complaints, and the step-by-step process followed by the BBC in dealing with them. The BBC is obligated to take all complaints seriously and to report back to the complainant, usually within two weeks. It has been considering the Labour party’s objections for four months.

          Shortly after the forthcoming general election was announced, The Guardian newspaper reported, on well-founded information, that the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit – the top level of its internal complaints process – had completed its investigation into Labour’s complaints about the documentary, and that none have been upheld. The Unit’s conclusions would back the programme makers.

          There is no indication, however, that the BBC will announce its findings before Britain goes to the polls on December 12.

          There may be other fallout, however. 

“Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so, ad infinitum.”

          Since April 2017 the BBC itself has had an external regulator – the Office for Communications, known as Ofcom. It is authorized to act as a final appeal in the BBC’s complaints procedure. If the Labour party is dissatisfied with the BBC’s response to its complaint, it could apply to Ofcom. The whole matter may yet have a long way to travel.

          There are a number of other loose ends.

          “Is Labour Antisemitic?” featured interviews with a succession of Labour whistleblowers who explained that soon after Corbyn’s election as party leader, they found themselves contending with his most senior aides who continually attempted to subvert the system by meddling in disciplinary cases relating to antisemitism. Labour’s press team claimed during the broadcast that the staffers featured had political axes to grind and lacked credibility.

          As a result five ex-Labour party staffers are now reported to be suing Labour for libel over alleged smears they have been subjected to since the programme was transmitted.

          Separately John Ware, the TV director responsible for the programme, recently began libel proceedings against the Labour party over its public criticism of his reputation in public statements issued in advance of the broadcast.

          Either or both these cases could emerge into the public domain before December 12 reminding the British public, if reminder were needed, of the toxic issue of antisemitism that still clings to the Labour party. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 27 November 2019

Saturday, 23 November 2019

Is Iran losing its grip?

          Iran’s international power structure is under severe threat from mass disaffection.

          Ever since the Islamic revolution of 1979 swept the Shah from Iran’s Peacock Throne, its leaders have been painstakingly building Iranian influence in the Middle East. The regime has been single-minded in pursuit of political and religious hegemony in the region. Its strategy – which has included the acquisition of nuclear capability – has involved strengthening the power of Shi’ite entities and coordinating them into what has been called a “Shia Crescent”. This arc of Iranian influence now stretches from Lebanon across to Syria, then to Iraq, through Iran itself and via the Gulf state of Bahrain down to Yemen. In Lebanon, Iran exercises control by way of Hezbollah, in Yemen it sustains the Houthis, and up to 70 percent of the citizens of the Island kingdom of Bahrain are Shia, though it is ruled by a Sunni royal family.

          In the last few weeks severe and widespread popular protests have erupted across Iran’s sphere of influence. This wave began in Iraq, was followed in Lebanon and, on Friday November 15, burst out inside Iran itself, triggered when the government announced a 300 percent increase in the price of fuel linked to a tightening of the rationing system. Motorists are combining to block roads and switch off their engines and, in some cases, abandon their vehicles.

          A succession of popular protests have been plaguing Iran for a good few years. Massive corruption at the highest levels, allied to economic mismanagement and continuing political and social suppression, have certainly not been helped by severe and extended US sanctions. The situation might be convincing some Iranians that their main hope lies in regime change.

          So the Islamic Republic is struggling to maintain its legitimacy at home, as well as its influence abroad.

          In both Iraq and Lebanon demonstrations against corruption and a lack of economic reform have erupted recently and show no sign of diminishing. In both countries, the unprecedented protests are demonstrating that for ordinary citizens Iran and its proxies have merely served to worsen their conditions.

          In the face of that harsh reality, all Iran’s successes count for nothing. Yes, Hezbollah scored a success in last year’s parliamentary elections in Lebanon, and secured valuable seats in the cabinet. But now they are associated in the public mind with the failures of the government, and protests are as great in Hezbollah regions of Lebanon as elsewhere.

          In Syria, Iran has allied itself with Russia and even with arch-enemy Turkey, in preserving President Bashar al-Assad in power. Iran’s long-term objectives in the Middle East depend on maintaining a power footprint in Syria. But it has done nothing towards resettling the millions of Syrians who are internally displaced, nor the millions of Syrian refugees living in camps in Turkey, Lebanon and elsewhere.

         Writing in the journal Foreign Policy, Hanin Ghaddar, Visiting Fellow at the Washington Institute's Geduld Program on Arab Politics, believes that in building its power base in the region, the Iranian regime failed to notice that “power requires a vision for the day after,” as she puts it. “As events unfold in the region, Iran is failing to rule. Iraq and Lebanon are good examples.”

          Iran created proxies in both countries, gave them power through funding and arms, and helped them infiltrate state institutions. Today, she maintains, state institutions in Iraq and Lebanon instead of protecting and serving the people, have to protect and serve Iranian interests.

          The protests in Lebanon have arisen because the Lebanese public are realizing that the enemy is within – it is their own government and political leaders, especially since Hezbollah has acquired a tight grip on so many levers of power. In fact Lebanon is widely referred to as “a state within a state”. For decades Hezbollah has prided itself on protecting the poor and dispossessed. Now Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has sided with the authorities against the people in the streets. So now. for the first time since Hezbollah was formed in the 1980s, Lebanese Shi’ites are turning against it. In Nabatieh, the group’s heartland in the south of Lebanon, Shi’ite protesters even burned the offices of Hezbollah’s leaders.

          Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, resigned some weeks ago. One projected successor has withdrawn his candidacy. Whenever a new government is formed its first challenge will be the economic crisis, rooted in years of state waste, corruption and mismanagement. Its second will be to contain the nationwide protest movement that wants to see the old elite gone from power. Meanwhile protesters are burning tyres, throwing stones at soldiers, and blocking roads across the country, as the demonstrations show no sign of slackening.

         In Iraq hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets since October 1, demanding more jobs, an end to corruption, and better public services. On November 15 Iraq's top Shia cleric gave them his support. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shia Muslim cleric, said that corruption among the ruling elite has reached "unbearable limits". Many people, he said, lack basic needs while top leaders "share the country's wealth among themselves and disregard each other's corruption."

          Although Iraq contains the world's fifth-largest proven reserves of oil, nearly three-fifths of its 40 million people live on less than six dollars a day, and millions lack access to adequate healthcare, education, clean water and electricity.

          The protesters – Sistani presumably among them – believe that Iran, as well as the US, are more concerned with wielding regional influence than the needs of ordinary Iraqis. One of the demonstrators’ slogans is “Iran out, out.” 

          The Iranian regime may be good at extending its power base, but it has shown itself woefully inadequate at the business of governing people.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 November 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 23 November 2919:

Sunday, 10 November 2019

ISIS women - the new danger

    “Remaining and expanding” (baqiya wa’tatamaddad) became the official slogan of Islamic State back in 2015, when its first territorial losses began to register. It was quoted defiantly on Monday October 28, 2019 by an ISIS wife to journalists visiting the al-Hol holding camp, after US President Donald Trump had announced the death of self-styled caliph and leader of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. 

        Al-Hol, one of several such camps in north-eastern Syria, is where some 70,000 supporters of Islamic State – the equivalent of a moderate-sized town in the US or the UK – are retained. It is crammed with tents housing the thousands of children and their mothers, most of whom remain fanatic supporters of ISIS. One woman, wearing a black abaya and face-covering niqab, told reporters: “Our faith will not change. The day of revenge will come, and the Islamic State will remain…Even if our men are captured, we are also soldiers of the Islamic State.”

        This defiance is not unexpected. Even before the Turkish incursion over the border into Syria on October 21, Al-Hol was awash with the violent ideology of ISIS, into which the children were being indoctrinated day by day.

        ISIS women had turned one of the tents into a court that administered Islamic State’s version of Sharia law. In September they found a 16-year-old girl guilty of apostasy. After the verdict was announced, women pulled knives from their black abayas and began stabbing her repeatedly. Kurdish police intervened and bore her off to a clinic, but later she died.

        Several other inmates have been attacked or killed by fanatical ISIS women. On October 1, Kurdish police stormed a tent and rescued two women who had been sentenced to death, and were about to be executed by stabbing. The women fought back with knives and pistols. A Western observer who visited the camp in June reported that the foreigner annex of al-Hol “seems to hold a small core of organized and extremely militant women who plot and prey upon others...” She said hard-line detainees were trying to maintain the cruel strictures of the caliphate inside the camp, including whipping women who were caught smoking, and encouraging their own children to beat up the children of those deemed unbelievers.

        Abdul-Qader al-Ofeidly, commander of the Kurdish police force known as Asayish which guards the camps. told journalists that a raid in September had uncovered hand grenades and the body of a woman who had been killed by other detainees.
        In recent weeks, detainees have stabbed a number of guards and beaten other residents to death. Al-Hol, in particular, has been described as a “ticking timebomb”, and a “mini caliphate”. Most such stabbings take place in a high-security area known as the Annex, home to some 10,000 hard-line women ISIS supporters from countries other than Syria or Iraq. “Foreign women are trying to impose religious classes on all women in the camp,” said al-Ofeidly.

        The Kurds have long warned that they cannot hold the prisoners indefinitely, and now say their forces are stretched thin as they send hundreds of guards as reinforcements to join the forces resisting Turkey’s incursion over the border. They have also halted operations against ISIS, which continues to stage attacks in Syria and Iraq.

        The Kurds in north-eastern Syria are administering not only holding camps, but a number of prisons detaining ISIS fighters. A few days after some of its Kurdish guards had left, more than 100 ISIS detainees escaped from one of the prisons. Shortly afterwards hundreds of ISIS wives also fled nearby camp Roj. On October 11 dozens of residents in al-Hol attacked an exit gate in an apparent escape attempt before Kurdish security forces brought the situation under control. Video from a closed-circuit camera showed security forces chasing women in black robes through the center of the camp.

        The Kurdish-controlled Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are struggling to maintain order both in holding camps and prisons. The ISIS leadership, spurred on by the death of al-Baghdadi, is exploiting the chaos to mobilize its adherents, men and women. The remaining guards at al-Hol have been attacked and had petrol poured over them, while the body of a 10-year-old child was found in a backpack, guards told a visiting journalist.

        Meanwhile at the Ain Issa camp, home to some 13,000 women with suspected links to Islamic State and their children, at least 750 people are reported to have fled. After Turkish shelling struck close to the area on October 13, they began to riot and scared away the guards. Jelal Ayaf, the co-chair of the camp’s management, said sleeper cells within the civilian section emerged during the riot, and attacked the remaining guards.

        Western countries, including the US and the UK, have refused to repatriate citizens who joined ISIS, fearing they may not have enough evidence to convict them in criminal courts. Kurdish police force commander, al-Ofeidly, maintains that it is the foreign women who are the main threat in the camp, and echoes calls by Kurdish leaders for their home countries to take them back. Continued inaction by the West on this front may soon result in the very outcome prophesied by the women zealots of Islamic State – ISIS will remain and it will expand.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 10 November 2019:
Published in the MPC Journal, 10 November 2019:

Monday, 28 October 2019

Normalization – the ultimate betrayal or the path to peace?

This article of mine appears in the current edition of The Jerusalem Report, dated November 11, 2019
          For hard-line supporters of the Palestinian cause, “normalization” (or “tatbia” in Arabic) is the worst political sin any Palestinian can commit. It has been adopted as a term of abuse by the Palestinian leadership and by organizations which support them, including the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, to stigmatize any form of joint Palestinian-Israeli activity. 

          In June 2019 the Palestinian Authority (PA) sacked a man from its education ministry and removed him as council chief of the West Bank village of Deir Kadis after a social media video showed four Israeli neighbours joining in the celebrations at his son’s wedding.

          In December 2018 a Palestinian court in Ramallah sentenced a Palestinian-American to imprisonment for life for brokering the sale of a house in the Old City of Jerusalem to an Israeli organization.

          In September 2016 the PA arrested four Palestinians for sharing a cup of coffee with Jewish community members in the West Bank town of Efrat, claiming that it was a crime for Palestinians to meet socially with Jewish settlers because it promoted normalization. 

          In short, in the view of the anti-normalizers, no form of joint activity, cooperation or dialogue with Israelis is acceptable - even engaging with Israeli peace activists who have the best of intentions towards them. All such undertakings must be viewed as collaboration with the enemy, the “colonial oppressors” of the Palestinian people.

          The elephant in this room is the fact that every day some 130,000 Palestinians cross into Israel from the West Bank to work for some 8,100 employers. They engage in a whole variety of jobs and their employment is an important part of the West Bank economy. Palestinians working in Israel bring home about 5 billion shekels ($1.4 billion). Their average salary is two-and-a-half times the average salary in the Palestinian autonomous areas.

          In addition to the Palestinians who work in Israel, around 36,000 are employed in Israeli firms in the West Bank, many earning up to three times the average Palestinian wage. Israel has established several industrial zones there, comprising around 1,000 businesses in all.

          This on-going demonstration of Palestinian-Israeli joint activity on a massive scale is rarely referred to by the anti-normalization activists, perhaps because of the sheer number of Palestinians, multiplied by their families, involved, or perhaps because of the economic benefits the Palestinian community undoubtedly derives from it. Attempts by the anti-normalizers to interfere with this would probably result in a political backlash from the substantial numbers of Palestinians whose livelihood depends on their Israeli jobs.

          So turning a blind eye to this inconvenient aspect of the issue, the anti-normalization campaign has devised a long and detailed rationale for its programme. Produced in 2011 by one of the founding organizations of the BDS movement, the paper (republished as “What is Normalization?”) seeks to define the term in relation to its most important manifestations. The arguments are deployed in a mainly calm and reasoned manner, designed to convince the intelligent reader of their validity. Their cogency, however, is entirely dependent on acceptance of the document’s core assumptions – that Israel is, in their terms, both a “colonial oppressor” and an apartheid state. 

          The “colonial oppressor” charge, made repeatedly in the paper, is shorthand for the anti-Zionist argument that Israel was created as the result of invasion and occupation by Western colonialists, and that the Jewish people have no historic connection to the Holy Land. “It is helpful to think of normalization,” runs the paper, “as a ‘colonialization of the mind’.” This view ignores the fact that the League of Nations and the United Nations, with the world’s approval, endorsed establishing a Jewish homeland in the area once known as Palestine. (The official wording of the Mandate handed to Great Britain includes: “…recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.”)

          Ignoring or rejecting the internationally approved basis for the creation of Israel, the essential call of the paper is for resistance to Israel’s existence. Any joint project, it says, “that is not based on a resistance framework serves to normalize relations.” However the paper does not venture into any definition of “resistance”, nor offer any assessment of what the limits of such action should be. So it has no room for considering that the steps taken by Israel to protect its citizens against decades of terrorist activity, often termed “resistance”, are largely what explain the “oppressor” tag. 

          The authors attempt to persuade Arab-Israelis – that is, Palestinian citizens of Israel who form some 20 percent of the population – that they are living in an apartheid state. This argument, at least, must fall on deaf ears. As voters, tax-payers, workers and citizens in a fully-functioning multi-ethnic state, it is patently obvious to Israel’s Arab population that apartheid philosophy forms no part of the democratic functioning of their country. 

          The authors go on to argue that when Israeli-Arab citizens participate in international events (they cite as an example the Eurovision song contest) they contribute to what they call a “deceptive” appearance of tolerance, democracy and normal life in Israel. In short the authors assert that Israel is an intolerant and undemocratic country where a normal life is impossible. Such an assertion, clearly at odds with reality, just as the constantly repeated apartheid charge, can gain hold only on people who have no direct knowledge of Israel and are prepared to believe whatever they are told. 

          Turning to the international context, the paper urges its BDS supporters to refrain from participating in any event that “morally or politically equates the oppressor and oppressed” since such an event “normalizes Israel’s colonial domination over Palestinians.” The authors repudiate all efforts at fostering reconciliation, healing or dialogue unless such initiatives explicitly aim “to end oppression”, as they conceive it.

          They pick out two Palestinian-Israeli bodies dedicated to dialogue and joint action aimed at achieving a peaceful solution to the Israel-Palestinian dispute – OneVoice and IPCRI (the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information). Both are roundly excoriated because, in the authors’ view, their purpose is too limited. They do not embrace the need to struggle jointly against “Israel’s colonial and apartheid policies,” and they ignore “the rights of Palestinian refugees.” In short, the paper asserts that such joint cooperative initiatives aimed at fostering peace “serve to normalize oppression and injustice.” 

          As for the two-state solution, specifically promoted by IPCRI, the BDS authors reject it out of hand. In their view acknowledging Israel’s right to exist at all “advocates an apartheid state in Israel that disenfranchises the indigenous Palestinian citizens” and ignores the “right of return” of the Palestinian refugees.” 

          In passing it might be noted that in 1948 up to 750,000 Palestinian Arabs fled their homes. Over the years the UN body dealing with the problem, UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency) developed a unique method of counting them – they passed on the refugee status to their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, regardless of whether these people had acquired citizenship in their host countries. For example 1.8 million Jordanian citizens are still classified by UNRWA as Palestinian refugees. 

          As a result UNRWA asserts that today there are more than 5 million Palestinian refugees – a number growing exponentially, year by year. The figure is seized on by BDS, which demands the “right of return” for all of them, without explaining how the dwellings that 70 years ago housed 750,000 people could today accommodate 5 million.

          It seems clear from what BDS and its supporters write and say that, in their minds, the Arab-Israeli conflict is not over and the sovereign state of Israel is a temporary phenomenon that will be overthrown, given sufficient time and effort. Any attempt at reconciliation, at normalization, undermines this objective. It is a sad fact that by refusing to accept that Israel is a permanent presence in the Middle East, by advocating continuing resistance and turning their backs on any attempt at reconciliation, they are essentially condemning generations of Palestinians, as well as Israelis, to a perpetual state of conflict.

          To avoid this outcome, the anti-normalization campaign would need to reassess the political situation taking account of current realities, and reshape its objectives into achieving something politically feasible. 

          The Abraham Fund is a leading non-partisan, non-profit Israeli organization working to advance coexistence and equality among Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens. On August 29, 2019 it published the results of a research study among Jewish voters in the recent election, targeting those who had voted for Centre Left parties. The research showed that a party highlighting issues of concern to Arab communities suffered no deleterious effect on the level of its support, while including a message about equality between Israelis and Arabs increased its support by 11 percent. The study concluded that there is a base of positive attitudes among left-leaning Israeli voters on which to build future Arab-Israeli cooperation. 

          There is also already a plethora of positive action. All across Israel, people of good will are reaching out to their Arab neighbors in a whole range of joint ventures aimed at fostering friendship and ending decades of hostility. There are literally hundreds of organizations and groups in every field – economic, educational, industrial, commercial, agricultural – actively encouraging cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. 

          To pluck out just a few examples. Tech2Peace brings Israeli and Palestinian young people together to learn tech skills. The Palestinian Internship Program (PIP) provides young Palestinian graduates with work experience at leading Israel-based companies. The Hand in Hand centre for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel is a network of integrated, bilingual schools for Jewish and Arab children. The Hagar school is an integrated, bilingual educational institution for Jewish and Arab students in the Negev. Olives of Peace is a joint Israeli-Palestinian business venture to sell olive oil. Daniel Barenboim has created a world-class orchestra – the West-Eastern Divan – by bringing together young Israeli and Arab musicians without regard to ethnic or political affiliations. The Peres Center for Peace and Innovation runs an impressively wide range of programmes fostering joint Israeli-Palestinian cooperation across business, agriculture, education, health, culture and sport.
The list of such joint Israeli-Arab ventures aimed at breaking down barriers and promoting understanding is very long. All such efforts are condemned out of hand by anti-normalization campaigners, and their influence reaches deep into the Palestinian political leadership. Clearly they fear that normalization is the thin end of a wedge that will promote mutual understanding and eventually end the age-long Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

But this total rejection of normalization could prove to be their Achilles heel. If those who seek peace – both Israelis and Palestinians – began promoting the concept of normalization with the same zeal as those who expend so much energy opposing it, they might find themselves beating the rejectionists at their own game.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 30 October 2019:

Friday, 25 October 2019

Lebanon's biggest problem - Hezbollah

       This article of mine appears in the Jerusalem Post, Sunday 9 November 2019
        Lebanon is in chaos. For more than a week mass protests have been blocking city streets and town squares across the country. The crowds are demanding the resignation of the government, an overhaul of the country's political system and an end to the growing financial burdens imposed on them. Prime Minister Saad Hariri's economic reforms package, announced on October 21 has failed to placate them.

        For the moment, though, the prospect of the government resigning is remote, since it contains a strong Hezbollah element. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, has said that calls for government resignation were "a waste of time". There are, however, wheels within wheels, and while the President, Michel Aoun is certainly pro-Hezbollah, Hariri is not a political friend. On October 29 Hariri formally resigned as prime minister, but he remains in office as acting PM until some other nominee is approved. As the most obvious Sunni political leader, and given Lebanon’s unique constitution, he will most probably be re-elected into post.

        Many believe that Hezbollah, a body deemed a terrorist organization by large parts of the world, has created a “state within a state” inside Lebanon. Many believe that the Lebanese state and Hezbollah are in effect indistinguishable.
        In theory Lebanon should be a template for a future peaceful Middle East. It is the only Middle East country which, by its very constitution, shares power equally between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and Christians. Theory, however, has had to bow to practical reality. Lebanon has been highly unstable for much of its existence, and its unique constitution has tended to exacerbate, rather than eliminate, sectarian conflict. 

        Around 1980 – the exact date is disputed – Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, still basking in the glory of his 1979 Islamic Revolution, decided to strengthen his grip on Shia Islam by consolidating a number of Lebanon’s militant Shi’ite Muslim groups. He formed and funded a body calling itself Hezbollah, or “the Party of God”. 

        Hezbollah declared that its purpose, in line with Khomeini’s, was to oppose Western influences in general and Israel’s existence in particular. Soon Hezbollah was acting as Iran’s proxy in perpetrating a campaign of terror against their two perceived enemies. Waves of kidnappings, bombings and assassinations were carried out across the world, many of them indiscriminate, slaughtering Westerners and Muslims alike. 

        It is no surprise, therefore, that Hezbollah in its entirety has been designated a terrorist body by the Arab League, as well as by a batch of other nations. 

        How complete is Hezbollah’s takeover of the state of Lebanon? As regards the economy, Hezbollah has large investments in the Lebanese banking sector and in a wide range of businesses. On the political front, it is stronger than ever. 

        The country went to the polls in May 2018. The elections saw the Hezbollah-led political alliance win just over half of the parliamentary seats. A major factor in Hezbollah’s popularity – especially among Lebanon’s Shi’ite population – is the vast network of social services, funded by Iran, that it runs, providing healthcare, education, finance, welfare, and communications. It has virtually taken over the state’s function in many areas. The bodies providing the social provision are used to disseminate Hezbollah’s ideology and strengthen its position within Lebanese society. 

        The government that was eventually formed some nine months after the poll reflected the dominant position attained by Hezbollah and its allies. The organization was allocated three ministries, while the Finance Ministry went to a Hezbollah ally. Might is right in Lebanon, and Hezbollah dominates within government because it is backed by the financial and military sponsorship of Iran. Corruption in official circles, and exploitation of the population are both endemic. 

        The distinguished commentator on Middle East affairs, Jonathan Spyer, recently analyzed the extent to which Hezbollah, acting as a proxy for Iran, has swallowed up the Lebanese state. The shell of the state has been left intact, he pointed out, both to serve as a protective camouflage and to carry out those aspects of administration in which Hezbollah and Iran have no interest. As a result, he concludes, it is impossible today in key areas of Lebanese life to determine exactly where the official state begins and Hezbollah’s shadow state ends. 

        Lebanon’s March 14 Alliance is a coalition of politicians opposed to the Syrian régime and to Hezbollah. March 14, 2005 was the launch date of the Cedar Revolution, a protest movement triggered by the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri earlier that year. The demonstrations were directed against Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria, suspected from the first of being behind the murder, and his Iranian-supported allies in Lebanon, Hezbollah, widely believed to have carried out the deed. 

        The echoes of Rafik Hariri’s cold-blooded slaughter have continued to reverberate through Lebanese politics. Saad Hariri, Rafik's son, had been demanding that Hezbollah disband its militia and direct its thousands of fighters to join Lebanon's conventional armed forces, a demand that leading opinion-formers in Lebanon continue to make. With Hezbollah fighting to support Assad, while a large segment of Lebanese opinion is in favour of toppling him, the conflict has inflamed sectarian tensions. 

        Many Lebanese, even those of Shi’ite persuasion, resent the fact that Hezbollah is, at the behest of Iran, fighting Muslims in a neighbouring country – activities far from the purpose for which the organization was founded. They resent the mounting death toll of Lebanese fighters 

        Mass unrest has shaken Lebanon before – it had its share of “Arab Spring” upheavals in 2011 – but for the first time protests are just as evident in the south of Lebanon, an area tightly controlled politically by Hezbollah, as in the rest of the country. 

        That Lebanon’s masses may be rebelling against the stranglehold that Hezbollah has exerted on the country is, perhaps, the most hopeful aspect of the current situation.

Published in Israel Hayom as "Hezbollah has become Lebanon's main problem" on 29 October 2019 

Published in the Eurasia Review, 2 November 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 3 November 2019:

Erdogan’s bid for supreme power

        Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to straddle the global stage like a colossus. With one foot firmly planted in NATO, he should in theory be closely aligned with his Western colleagues. His other foot, however, appears to be resting in the snows of Moscow. He has concluded an arms deal with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin which gives him access to an anti-missile system designed to detect and shoot down stealth fighters like the F-35 produced by the US, which he was also seeking to acquire. Forced to make a choice, he plumped for the Russian deal.

        He is also the fulcrum of current political and military activity in the Middle East. Domestically he has for years been combatting the PKK, a group struggling for Kurdish autonomy, sometimes prepared to use terrorism to make its point. He maintains that the YPG group, which dominates the Kurdish Peshmerga military force stationed on the Syrian-Turkish border, is indistinguishable from the PKK.

        When US President Donald Trump suddenly announced a withdrawal of US forces from the area, Erdogan sprang into action, launching a military attack aimed at forcing the YPG back further into Syria. He proposes to construct a so-called “safe zone” several kilometers wide, into which he intends moving the nearly 4 million Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey during their civil war.

        Undeterred by the arrival of Syrian national forces in support of the YPG Erdogan, having agreed to a short ceasefire to allow the Kurdish troops to retreat from the area, is intent on reaching his military objective. What gives him the ability to act unfettered on the international scene?

        By the time Adolf Hitler seized the reins of supreme power in August 1934, his Nazi party had gained control of every aspect of the nation’s administration. Thereafter he ruled Germany, and the vast territories that his armed forces conquered and subjugated, totally unencumbered by any political, judicial or constitutional constraints.

        Examine Erdogan’s rise to power in Turkey, and disturbing parallels emerge. Yet Erdogan is still not the absolute ruler that Hitler was.

        In July 2016 Erdogan had been Turkey’s president for two years, and had made no secret of his determination to transform the office – traditionally simply ceremonial – into that of a political supremo. The timetable for accomplishing Erdogan’s constitutional revision envisaged its passage through parliament by the end of 2016, and a popular referendum a few months later. However his AKP party were at daggers drawn with the followers of Erdogan’s main opponent, Fethullah Gulen, an influential Turkish cleric who lived in the US. Popular support was spread evenly between them, and the result of the referendum seemed far from certain.

        Then, on 15 July 2016, just before 11 pm, military jets were seen flying over Ankara, and a group of Turkish soldiers took over several institutions there and in Istanbul. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced that part of the military was making an "illegal attempt" to seize power. The coup, if that indeed is what it was, was soon thwarted by national forces, but it justified Erdogan in imposing a state of emergency. Retribution of unprecedented severity was exacted from suspected opponents. More than 110,000 people were arrested, including nearly 11,000 police officers, 7,500 members of the military, and 2,500 prosecutors and judges. 179 media outlets were shut down, and some 2700 journalists dismissed.

        Subsequent intensive inquiries left a large number of questions unanswered, and the New York Times was not alone in believing that these loose ends led to the suspicion that the government may have allowed the coup to unfold, or even encouraged it.

        In April 2017, with the state’s constitutional and judicial powers still outside the executive’s control, the referendum on the constitutional changes duly took place. The result – a narrow 51% in favor against 49% against – strengthened suspicions about the nature of the coup the previous July. Had opposition voices not been removed, and a major propaganda campaign not been possible, Erdogan could well have lost the referendum, and with it his long-desired bid for supreme power.

        After the referendum came the constitutional transformation, described by one commentator as “maybe one of the starkest examples of constitutional gerrymandering.”

        The office of Prime Minister was abolished as was the parliamentary Cabinet, and their powers were transferred to the presidency, together with a tranche of traditional parliamentary powers such as setting the annual budget. Authority over the armed forces was, for the first time, invested in the president.

        The judiciary similarly lost power to the president. The High Council of Judges and Prosecutors was completely revised. The new Council was reduced from 22 regular members to 13, Of these four are appointed directly by the president while, in addition, the minister and deputy minister of justice – both members of the president’s cabinet – take up two more seats. As a result six of the 13 council members are presidential appointees.

        Erdogan now heads a system of executive rule virtually free from the constraints of separation of powers, thus enabling him to establish by decree the structures to support his system of one-man rule.

        And yet a modicum of the basic constitutional and judicial structure of the old Turkish republic lingers, and the popular will still has the ability to break through. Erdogan began his political career as mayor of Istanbul. Subsequently, throughout his time in national politics, his AKP party ruled Istanbul. Indeed he is on record as saying that if his party “lost Istanbul, we would lose Turkey.”

        Then came the municipal elections of March 2019. To the shock and horror of the AKP and of Erdogan himself, the AKP candidate was defeated by 0.2% of the vote – a mere 13,700. The AKP immediately challenged the result and petitioned for a rerun. That did not sit well with the electorate. In the new vote, held in June 2019, the anti-AKP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu, boosted his margin of victory 57-fold to win 54.2% of the vote against 45.0%. It was a record in the history of Istanbul local elections.

        Several commentators considered the result the "beginning of the end" for Erdogan. It was scarcely that, especially given the almost unassailable position he has acquired within the body politic. The whole episode does however indicate that all is not yet lost for Turkey, that democracy is bubbling away, and that hopefully absolute power will continue to evade Erdogan.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 26 October 2019:

Published in the Mashreq Politics and Culture Journal, 27 October 2019:

Friday, 18 October 2019

The Kurds, Assad and the shape of a future Syria

          Media commentators are in a spin over recent developments along the Turkish-Syrian border. For example, several are scratching their heads over the game plan that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has in mind. 

          On the one hand Syrian president Bashar al-Assad could most certainly not be sending troops to support the Kurds without the clear agreement of Russia. In fact, some commentators describe the arrangement as a “Russian-brokered deal”. So Putin must be looking with equanimity at the prospect of Syrian government forces coming into direct conflict with Turkish ground troops.

          On the other hand on October 10 Russia joined the US in blocking a UN Security Council resolution calling on Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to cease military action and withdraw from Syrian territory – and Putin has indicated that he will exercise his veto on any future anti-Turkish motions as well. So Putin is apparently both against Turkey’s incursion into Syrian territory and against stopping it.

          Media commentators are equally at sea over the Kurdish-Syrian arrangement. Several see the deal as a move forced by events on a reluctant Kurdish administration and believe, with the Daily Telegraph’s Raf Sanchez, that “the deal appeared to strike a death knell for Kurdish hopes of maintaining autonomy from Damascus in their own semi-state in northeast Syria.”

          But Assad’s Syrian administration is not at permanent loggerheads with the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Kurdish forces have indeed fought the Syrian military on several occasions during the 8-year civil war, but by mid-2018 the SDC had begun to seek better relations with the Assad regime. On July 27, 2018, in response to an invitation from the Syrian government, a delegation of the SDC arrived in Damascus to hold direct talks − its first official visit to the Syrian government.

          There had been several other signs of this shift in political direction. The SDC had already announced that it intended to open an office in Damascus, while the day before the SDC delegation travelled to the Syrian capital, it announced that Kurdish forces were ready to join any military operation by government forces in the northern governorate of Idlib aimed at retaking the Kurdish area of Afrin (Afrin was captured by Turkish-backed troops in March 2018, as part of a drive by Erdogan to prevent the Kurds from dominating Turkey’s southern land border). No such military action was mounted, so Turkey was in control of a segment of Syrian territory even before the current incursion.

          North-eastern Syria is under Kurdish administration. Known as Rojava, the area covers some 25 percent of what used to be sovereign Syria. There is, therefore, a pragmatic political rationale for both Assad and the SDC to seek an accommodation. In bringing Rojava under Syrian government administration Assad, who now controls some 70 percent of old Syria, would effectively be regaining some 95 percent of pre-civil war Syrian territory.

          As for the Kurdish administration in Rojava – known since 2012 as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) – they are not seeking independence, but a degree of autonomy. They perfectly understand that if Assad decides to grant it, a huge chunk of territory would be placed under some form of government control, but anticipate that it would be akin to the arrangement in Iraq where an autonomous Kurdistan operates in alliance with the government.

          In such a deal, Assad’s regime, and himself as its President, would acquire substantial additional political support − vital if ever events force a presidential election on him as part of a peace deal. In short, both parties stand to gain from an accord.

          As for Erdogan, he maintains that the YPG group, which dominates the Kurdish Peshmerga military force, is indistinguishable from the PKK, a Turkey-based terrorist group in support of Kurdish autonomy or independence, and indeed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and the PKK leadership have publicly recognized the YPG as part of the PKK structure.

          But media commentators seem to ignore the fact that back in the 2000s, when Erdogan led his AKP party to victory in the general election and formed his first government, an accommodation was actually reached with the PKK. As the Kurdish language began to be used in broadcasting, education and the print media, the PKK softened their demands for a state of their own in favor of equal rights and autonomy. A deal including an end to violence on the part of the PKK was actually announced in 2013. The whole accommodation came to a violent end in July 2015 when the leader of the HDP, a legitimate Kurdish political party, refused to back Erdoğan's plans to convert the Turkish presidency into the sort of autocracy it has since become.

          So there is a precedent for an accommodation with the PKK. In the words of Sir Peter Westmacott, one-time British ambassador to Turkey: “The aims of the PKK have evolved over the years. If they could now renounce the use of violence as part of an understanding with the Turkish government that the reform process of the early years of the Erdoğan government will resume, everyone could emerge a winner.”

          The building blocks for an acceptable outcome of the current chaos lie all around.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 17 October 2019: